The Pentagon is poised to announce the deployment of at least one more combat brigade to Afghanistan in the coming weeks, as the expected force buildup of U.S. soldiers and Marines begins to take form.
Officials say there will likely be one more Army brigade and one Marine regimental combat team ordered to Afghanistan by the summer — and at least one of those will be announced shortly after the first of the year.
Defense officials also confirmed earlier reports that a combat aviation brigade will head to Afghanistan early next year. The brigade — roughly 2,800 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne — is based at Fort Bragg, N.C.
All told, the U.S. could nearly double its troop levels there to as many as 60,000, sending up to four combat brigades and thousands of support forces within the next year.
Gen. David McKiernan, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces, has asked for four combat brigades and thousands of support troops — which could total between 25,000-30,000 troops in addition to the roughly 32,000 there now.
Ramping up the U.S. contingent in Afghanistan will likely take much of next year, as combat brigades and support units gradually move in. The first unit to go will be the 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, which will deploy to Afghanistan in the coming weeks.
The 82nd Airborne aviation unit will deploy in the spring. That unit is smaller than a ground combat brigade, which normally numbers about 3,500. Therefore it does not fill one of the requirements for four combat brigades that McKiernan requested.
After that, a Marine combat unit and the second Army brigade will likely move in by summer. Officials said Monday they are still not clear when the fourth combat brigade would deploy — but one estimate is very late in 2009.
The added forces come even as U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, caution that they also don't want too many American troops in Afghanistan. Military leaders say a key priority is to train and equip the Afghan forces so that they can take over security of their own country.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has expressed similar concerns, and he pressed America's top military leader Monday on the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan as the buildup begins.
Karzai asked Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, what kinds of operations the newly deployed troops would carry out and said the Afghan government should be consulted about those operations.
He also told Mullen that the troops need to be careful in Afghan villages — alluding to his often-repeated protests about the civilian casualties caused by some military operations.
U.S. military officials have stressed that commanders do all they can to avoid civilian casualties, but they also note that insurgents often use civilians as shields. Officials have suggested that the military's heavy reliance on air power in Afghanistan runs a greater risk of innocent deaths, but they have also agreed to cooperate more with Afghan officials to investigate such incidents.
As the U.S. fashions its increase in force levels, it appears that many — including the 82nd Airborne aviation brigade — will be assigned to the NATO-led coalition. Currently 14,000 of the U.S. troops in Afghanistan are operating under the coalition, while 18,000 are training Afghan forces and fighting insurgents.